The reason for which all of the interactions on this trip so far have been so rich is their intensity, from my perspective, due to prolonged periods of solitude between them. The actual time spent riding may be mentally busy, in part due to the internal narration of each manoeuvre like one is taught during advanced riding training. But rocking up in a strange town, the downtime in a pension or guesthouse, wandering around searching for a place to eat or simply looking around a new location, one’s mind tries to process what one has seen and learned up until that moment.
I set out on this journey asking questions about identity and history. That of course brings with it both joyful and negative conversations. Some are traumatic. One person expresses fear of a far right party and talks about being shocked by their advert depicting blonde school children with the caption “School free from Islam” (it turned out to be a stock photo from Slovakia). Another talks about their fear of “Muslim gangs” arising from attacks such as the one in Cologne a couple of years ago, and dismissively says “of course they are all drug dealers”. A friend in France who has experienced racism directly tries to make sense of it all: “If everything our city does is to stop recent migrants integrating, of course there will emerge a shadow economy, people trying to survive”. Another comment in a low crime setting: “It’s completely safe here, not like Germany, because we haven’t let refugees in”. Another person lays the blame for division at the door of religion, both Islam and Catholicism. He prefaces this with “No f*cking flag”. Elsewhere, watching a report on the television about African refugees being rescued from a sinking boat in the Mediterranean, my interlocutor points at the screen and shrugs sadly. There are accusations that towns and neighbourhoods where far left parties have gained a foothold in local politics are deteriorating, and that Jewish people have come to dread the far left.
The spectres of both fascism and communism continue to stalk Europe. Visiting a number of sites and museums documenting the horrors of war, genocide and partition, with a significant overlap between victim and perpetrator depending on the historical time period one wonders, has Europe seen off the absolute worst of history, or is more yet to come?
Of course I have my own views but as a lapsed historian and someone who is here to listen and learn, it’s not easy or necessarily helpful to steer every conversation. The problem is that with most rhetoric which appears to be extreme or ridiculous, there is a grain of truth. That is how populism works, it taps into people’s unhappiness and fears, takes an idea which rings true and builds exaggerations around it.
Going back to a conversation I had in Prague, why did so many people in Germany in the 1930s participate in something so monstrous, especially against the backdrop of being one of the most tolerant and progressive societies in the world in the 1920s? At school we get taught that many people were unhappy about the punitive reparations imposed on Germany by the Allies. But there is something deeper here, something which historians and psychologists have struggled to define. Was there really such a big disconnect between the “liberal elite” running Weimar Germany and ordinary working people in the factories or fields of a place like Bavaria or Saxony all along? Or was the rift shocking in its suddenness?
We weren’t there, and the very few people who survive to this day were small children. Even their testimony arising from the oral history passed down parents can only ever provide a partial picture. But we were around in the 1990s when the former Yugoslavia witnessed atrocities which in Europe at least many people thought would not be seen again. Part of the peacebuilding project were a number of institutions. The EU was designed to maintain peace via the route of economic prosperity. The Council of Europe was devised as a mechanism to protect the human rights of Europe’s citizens via political and diplomatic means. The various institutions in the Hague and Geneva provide legal enforcement mechanisms under international law.
These thoughts swirl around in my mind as I inspect Veronica after the previous day’s mechanical discomfort. The evening before I’d spotted a friendly looking motorbike garage. If there is an issue, I’d hopefully be able to borrow one of their work benches for a few Euros and at least try and diagnose any problem if not resolve it. I check the tyres and the oil. It’s all fine. The spark plugs are producing a good spark. There are no apparent leaks. Nothing obvious has melted. For the first time during the trip the battery seems a little wheezy on ignition but that is to be expected given yesterday’s tribulations. Hopefully some normal Spanish 95 petrol will make things better too. All in all, Veronica seems healthy. No need to beg for workbench space. Right now to me Soichiro Honda is probably the most important person whoever lived. I do notice that the clutch cable hose has rubbed a bit on the edge of the bullet fairing but that’s nothing which can’t be remedied with a sliver of electrical tape which I have some of. No big deal.
I knock back a reasonable coffee and a non descript pastry, pack up the saddlebags and clip the satnav onto the handlebars. My destination this morning will be an emotionally demanding one. I wait for the screen to light up and type in the letters G U E R N I C A.
Guernica is a small town between San Sebastian / Donostia and Bilbao. On 26 April 1937 Hitler’s and Mussolini’s warplanes, at the behest of Franco, subjected the town to over four hours of non stop aerial bombardment. Over a thousand civilians were killed. The town itself was many miles away from the front line, and this atrocity had the specific purpose of cowing and demoralising the civilian population.
This war crime was not only significant in its horror. It allowed Hitler to trial his newly invented “Blitzkreig” tactic which he then deployed against many other countries and cities. The collusion of the nazis and fascists with Franco’s regime was historically significant too. The war crime also finally drew international attention to the Spanish Civil War. One of the expressions of that was Picasso’s famous painting.
Modern Guernica is quiet and functional. It houses a number of peace related monuments and institutions and hosted the inaugural meeting f the Council of Martyr Cities. Riding through the city, one is struck by its total normality and calm. One also feels a profound sense of sadness, not only for those who lost their lives, their loved ones and their homes on that horrific day over 80 years ago, but for all of us. It seems, that so many people are focussed on divisions, minor and major, with external encouragement and without, have forgotten the mantra “Never Again”.
Is the worst of its history truly behind Europe? Or will there be another series of conflicts, genocides and massacres? One can see some of the upheavals in one seceding region or another resulting in ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Bosnia. A pogrom leading to a massacre of the Jewish or Gypsy community in a Central or Western European country, provoked by the far right or the far left is horrifyingly no longer unimaginable. An attack by a populist mob on a migrant or refugee camp in a Southern European country resulting in slaughter is also no longer unthinkable. Small scale versions of tension and violence which can lead to such events are already happening. What, if anything, can hold back the tide?
The far left and the far right in Europe have moved beyond dialogue. Some factions are choosing a legitimate democratic route and are doing their bidding via the ballot box. Some have managed to drag mainstream formerly centrist parties into their space. Others yet choose political violence and thuggery. The various streams of activity complement each other. The large numbers of ordinary people who participate in these movements have no faith in any information, evidence or data which populates the mainstream. To them, most of it is fake news. Unfortunately some of it is, and it’s not easy for anyone to distinguish between fact, manipulation of fact linguistically or through selective reporting, and outright untruths.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” Gandhi said. He himself was not without controversy, and that statement cuts both ways. Do we, as motorcycle “adventurers” as the Ted Simon Foundation kindly describes us, really have a role to play in peacebuilding and international dialogue? Perhaps a tiny one. The generosity showed to me, a random biker who barely speaks their language, by so many people I’ve met in different European countries gives me a lot of hope. Is it because I come in peace?
I leave Guernica behind with the heaviest of hearts. The “Never again” message is in danger of being forgotten outside of this town, or the Resistance Museum in Lyon, or the Jan Palach Memorial in Prague, or in Dresden, or the Holocaust Monument by Brandendurg Gate in Berlin. I wind down the small mountain path leading to the main motorway to Bilbao and Santander, and there is little joy to be had in the beautiful scenery or the perfect weather. One of the most important lessons of this journey has been “It’s not all about you”.